Formed in Turkey in 1991 by multi-instrumentalist Burhan Öçal, the Istanbul Oriental Ensemble has kept to its original goal of recreating the feel and styles of specifically Turkish and Thracian gypsy music. The Ensemble, with two percussionists, relies on the traditional lineup of clarinet, kanun (zither), oud, and violin for its melodies. Growing up in the village of Kirkareli, some 100 kilometers outside Istanbul, Öçal was exposed to gypsy music from an early age, and became a true convert to the sound when a gypsy group played at his circumcision ceremony when he was six years old. As an adult he established himself as a musician adept on the darbuka drum, oud, saz, and tanbur, playing with artists as varied as the Kronos Quartet and Joe Zawinul, and playing everything from classical music to jazz to drum'n'bass. He put together the Istanbul Oriental Ensemble with the cream of Turkey's Rom (gypsy) musicians -- Ferdi Nadaz (clarinet), Muzzafer Coskuner (oud), Sahin Sert (kanun), Fethi Tekyaygil (violin), and Ekrem Bagi (percussion). Initially their repertoire consisted primarily of 19th-century gypsy pieces culled from Turkey, Thrace, and into the Balkan regions, and their reputation was founded on performances around Europe, both in concerts and at festivals, long before they made their first album, 1996's Gypsy Rum. It won the prestigious Deutschen Schallplattenkritik award, voted by German reviewers as the best world music recording of the year, which helped make the band more widely known in Europe, and respected by audiences and reviewers alike for their authenticity and the quality of their improvisations, known as taqsim. In 1998 a second album, Sultan's Secret Door, was released, which again won the Deutschen Schallplattenkritik award, making the Istanbul Oriental Ensemble one of the very few bands to ever win with back-to-back albums. On the record they moved beyond purely traditional music into original compositions that embraced the gypsy spirit. It was followed by extensive touring all over the globe, after which the band concentrated on separate ventures for a while. They reconvened in 2000 to make Caravanserai, a concept album of sorts built around the ancient wayfarer's inn known as a caravanserai. The record explored all the facets of what was essentially a small community, and featured the vocals of Nadaz on the only singing track. Ten days after the completion of the disc, Nadaz died. Caravanserai was released in February 2001.
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